Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Covent Garden Market

August 28, 2010 · 11 Comments

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After we got off the Tube at Covent Garden, we were a little disorientd  so we asked a somewhat friendly-looking woman on the street for directions.  In an eominous harbinger of our afternoon to come, she responded- in a dead flat American Midwestern accent- “Oh, I have no idea, it’s my first time here, too.” We soon realized the market was located just down the street.  Within five minutes of entering, we found what the market was really about: a place for tourists and middle- and upper-middle-class locals to window shop and buy quasi-luxury items.

The first thing that surprised us about the market was the near total lack of ethnic food vendors. We actually only saw one food vendor, a fruit cart, despite the title Apple Market above the carts. Items for sale  included handbags, jewelry, soaps, and other window shopping items. All of these were conspicuously advertised as “handmade,” creating a sense of authenticity for shoppers. Several of the vendors also sold paintings of the more traditional parts of London;  items specifically for tourists. One vendor even had posters of American stars (i.e. Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe). These particular actresses are icons of higher class, which we felt reflected the classes that the market meant to attract. The area seemed to contain a lot of nouveaux rich items that would appeal to the middle- and upper-middle classes, as Fox suggests in Watching the English. The area seemed mostly designed for window shopping and watching free entertainment.

One of the entertainers, a melodramatic unicyclist, performed in front of St. Paul’s Church. There were two homeless men on the steps that most people seemed to be ignoring. The other historical area near the site was the Royal Opera House.  To add to the artistic atmosphere, flags and various paintings hung along the market’s rafters.

We were surprised to find that most of the people in the area were white considering the amount of diversity in London. The people also seemed religiously neutral, compared to others we’ve seen elsewhere in London—we did not see any religious indicators, such as headscarves or yamoulkas.

The buzzword for the afternoon was definitely “homogeneity.”  The market and its proprietors guarded the blandness of the place with extreme zeal. Ethnic restaurants (often chain restaurants) brandished flags with their countries of origin as if to make it obvious for tourists. A highlight of the unintentional comedy that this produced was a pub that hung a sign in the window saying: “Football colours are not permitted.”

The shops surrounding the market were equally lacking flavor.  Many of the retailers were large American companies, such as: Oakley, Build-a-Bear, and Disney.

Amidst all this complaining about Covent Garden, it should be mentioned that the area felt extremely safe.  We saw more young children in four hours today than we have seen in the fourty-eight hours we have been in London.  The area was very family-friendly and also seemed to be a popular date spot for couples in their 30s and older. Also, the market was not totally soulless, as we had two fairly amusing encounters.  First, we spotted a large group of men in rugby jerseys wearing obviously fake moustaches and Afro wigs.  We felt compelled to ask them what drove them to do this, and the answer was that there was a rugby final at Wembley much later in the day. They came to the market to get drunk (although they seemed pretty well-behaved and claimed that they were neutral in support). Second, one of us gave in to the entreaties of a very haggard street salesman (wearing a lanyard with a card that said “WORKING, NOT BEGGING.” The card was not as unnecessary as it sounds) and bought a magazine from him.  As he was clearly doing very poor business, we didn’t feel that bad chatting him up for ten minutes or so, a conversation dotted with some spectacular moments.  The most memorable line was “You’re from the States then? You have Christmas, we have Christmas.  But I have one big question: What the fuck is up with Thanksgiving? Seems like a bit of fraud to me.”

Categories: 2010 Dennis · 2010 Jesse · 2010 Mary · Markets
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11 responses so far ↓

  •   guya // Aug 28th 2010 at 14:47

    It is interesting to me that in the most racially homogenious areas, there exist so many different ethnic restuarants. I experienced the same thing around Notting Hill Gate yesterday.

  •   osterhoj // Aug 28th 2010 at 16:53

    I think your disappointment in Covent Garden is interesting. Last time I was in London, I enjoyed Covent Garden. But, when I think about it (and I’m really extemporizing now, so I could be totally wrong…), maybe the disappointment stems from the fact that you might have expected a market like the ones in the books we read this summer. Covent Garden, as you have discovered, is much more like a mall- or tourist trap, to quote you guys. I can imagine that, if you went in expecting a true “Farmer’s Market,” Covent Garden might really be a disappointment.

  •   stepheniem // Aug 28th 2010 at 17:50

    I agree; I really enjoyed Covent Garden the last time I was there. It is a touristy area, so I would think that it would make sense for some of the businesses to gear their shop fronts to the tourists. Out of curiosity, did you find that the pubs that were around there emphasized their “Englishness” in a similar tourist-catching way as the ethnic establishments? (Also, did you happen to see a store called The Octopus? It was my favorite when I was there & I’m wondering if it is still around…)

  •   brownrac // Aug 28th 2010 at 17:58

    Like your afro’ed rugby fans (ruggers?), I saw some interestingly costumed people today along the edge of Borough Market. There was a big long line of people and a good portion of them were wearing capes and fake crowns. Apparently there was a convention for fans of the game “Runescape,” which, I was told, “is way better than World of Warcraft.”

  •   kaitlin // Aug 28th 2010 at 18:43

    The market you visited seems very much in contrast to some of the other markets I’ve read about that display a lot of ethnic diversity and mostly working or lower middle class shoppers looking for low prices. It seems as though that was not entirely what you were expecting, and that you may have been thrown off being prepared as you were by our reading. I hope that you had some fun anyway. I wonder how you responded to the man at the magazine stand?

  •   amyh // Aug 28th 2010 at 18:52

    I find it really interesting that while your market was homogeneous in terms of the white population, the market I visited today was homogeneous in terms of religious background. I wonder if the residential areas near Covent Garden Market are as homogeneous as the market?

  •   Karl // Aug 29th 2010 at 02:19

    I hope your ruggers weren’t Leeds fans…they got thrashed. Let me guess that the magazine you bought was called “The Big Issue.” If I’m right, which I bet I am, this man was currently in some kind of bridge housing (homeless) and is selling the magazine as a way to work his way back into employment and financial stability.

  •   Elizabeth Barr // Aug 29th 2010 at 02:47

    The Covent Garden Market is FAMOUS- I want to say it was where Eliza sold flowers in “My Fair Lady” but I can’t recall at the moment . . .

  •   bowmanc // Aug 29th 2010 at 18:12

    I think it’s ironic that they call Thanksgiving a “fraud” when we are just about to celebrate a “bank holiday.” I also wonder whether if you see no religious garments, the area is actually neutral and not indicative of either ostracizing or at least not attracting certain cultures.

  •   maryc // Sep 3rd 2010 at 02:06

    We actually found the man selling (yes, professor, you’re right) “The Big Issue” quite amusing. We sort of made fun of ourselves as he playfully made fun of Americans celebrating Thanksgiving–a holiday, we explained, that’s based on a very controversial historical event (the white settlers breaking bread and giving thanks alongside their native “friends”). We did not allow the conversation to become too serious, and, thankfully, according to Fox, the English avoid earnestness. Unfortunately, we could not reach the topic of discussing the reason for Bank Holidays with him, as he shooed us away to continue selling. I wonder where that conversation would’ve lead to.

  •   Young Dennis // Sep 6th 2010 at 12:44

    Have seen similarly ragged-looking men selling The Big Issue in Borough Market and Bath, both touristy areas like Covent Garden. I’m not sure who’s behind the whole program of having poor (homeless?) men sell magazines in these places, but I like that they do it in areas where people are maybe least likely to be aware of those lower down on the socioeconomic chain.

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